Saturday, November 24, 2007

Back in two weeks

Once again we are off to the village for two weeks, so don't be concerned if you don't hear from us for a while.

— Sara

My kingdom for a lapisi (trashcan)

Trying to find a trashcan in Sāmoa is like playing a sadistic game of “Where’s Waldo?” Waldo isn’t even on this page. Waldo isn’t even in the book. It’s like trying to play “Where’s Waldo?” with a “Where’s Fred?” book

I frequently find myself with a small bit of trash looking in all the usual places where a trashcan might be. In my hotel room? No. In my hotel bathroom? No. Just around this corner in the lobby of the hotel? No. Drat!

However, out in the village it is even worse. To illustrate the point, let me tell you about teatime in the village.

Everyday at 10 am and at 3 pm we have teatime. It is a 30-minute break between classes and there are the makings of tea and coffee and frequently some little snacks (bananas, a package of cookies, like that). Everyday teatime generates some trash. But what to do with this trash? There aren’t any trashcans in the old church where we study or in any other buildings nearby for that matter. There was always an empty box on the floor next to the tea table that people would throw their trash into. The trouble with that was it wasn’t for trash. It was the box our tea stuff was stored in, so we were always scooping trash out of it.

Eventually someone started to bring a plastic bag to the tea table every day and that became the trashcan, which was great. But then we were stuck with a plastic bag full of trash—and nothing to do with it. The entire issue of dealing with and disposing of trash if very confusing to palagi in Sāmoa. Somehow I found myself handing small bags of trash to the pulenu’u (village mayor) at the end of every day. His family is hosting the trainers in the village and is supplying the cups for our tea—and apparently dealing with our trash. However, it feels very strange to be handing of a bag of trash to such an important man. Also, I am still not sure what he does with it. I think maybe they burn it? Or feel the organic parts to the pigs? It is a mystery.

On a trash related note, we had a language assignment. We had to ask certain member of our host families what they did during different times of the day. All of the kids in our family said that they picked up trash in the morning. I had a hard time with that one, since I had been walking past the same shampoo bottle in the yard for days. I knew no one was picking up trash. But then I started to pay closer attention to what they kids were doing in the morning and discovered that Sāmoans have a different definition of trash. The children were gathering up all the dead leaves that had fallen in the night and tidying up all the plant matter in the yard and garden.

Sāmoans have beautiful and meticulously maintained gardens. In our village there was going to be an inspection by the pulenu’u and our host mother spent hours out in the pouring rain (I mean pouring rain) weeding her garden and yard to prepare for this inspection. At first I expected to see her come in after it started to sprinkle, but she remained diligent. The sprinkle turned into a rain, the rain into a downpour and still she stayed out there weeding the yard while the kids carried away wheelbarrows of debris.

I want to make sure I am not creating a picture of beautiful garden, free of leaves, but strewn with trash. That is the other odd thing about trash in Sāmoa. Even though I have no idea where to put it myself and I usually see the family simply throw it out back behind the kitchen for the pigs, I don’t actually see that much trash around. Sure there is that one shampoo bottle and an occasionally tin can, but I know the family is generating more trash than that and I know that not all of it is things the pigs can eat. So where is it all going? That is the mystery.

— Sara

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Christmas in January

Since our training schedule is a little hectic and I am little hobbled by my butt boils, it is impossible for Cale and I to purchase and mail presents home during the remaining two days we have in Apia. After that we will be back in the village for two weeks with no access to shops or mail. So, long story short, we will be sending out our Christmas presents after our swearing in on December 12. Our presents won’t make it back to the states for the holidays; you can expect a Christmas in January from us.

— Sara

Saturday, November 17, 2007

That’s so palagi of you

Integrating into our communities is a key (probably the key) part of being successful Peace Corps Volunteers.

Our trainers have been doing everything they can to help us fit in and to become accepted members of the community. Two of the things they warned us of are Sunday activities and the nature of Sāmoans to want to make guests happy. Every village has different rules and standards, but for the most part Sunday seems to be a day for church, food and rest — and not much else.

As an example, our trainers have been telling us that we must ask the people of our village if it is okay to swim on Sunday. Many villages have rules against things like that. However, it isn’t enough to simply as, “Can I go swimming on Sunday?” because your hosts will want to make you happy and they will say yes if they think that is what you want to hear. You have to instead ask, “Do you go swimming on Sundays?” Or better yet, wait and observe. Are the people in your village swimming on Sundays?

Despite all the preparation, many of the people in our training group managed to so something very palagi (foreigner, touristy) in our training village last Sunday. One group went on a hike to a waterfall about an hour outside the village and another group went for a walk to the hydropower station, which is about a 20-minute walk. We were in the one that went to the power station.

It was a tricky situation. I don’t think either group believed they were doing anything inappropriate because both groups we made up of both palagi and youth from the village. I cannot speak for the waterfall group, but I was invited on my walk to the power station by a Sāmoan after church.

In retrospect, we should have been more cautious and followed the example of the majority of people around us, who spent Sunday afternoon visiting with family and napping.

The following day our trainers pointed out to us that the elders of the village had brought up our excursions saying, “That was very palagis of them.” Meaning that it is the foreigners, the tourists, the outsiders who do not really understand the meaning of Sunday in Sāmoa and who want to do things like sight see on that day. I did not get the impression that our actions offended the village, but I do believe that they set us apart others, people who still are not integrated.

I should probably back up at this point and mention that a walk to the power station isn’t just an educational hike to a clean source of energy. A lot of kids swim in the mini water park that is created by the fast moving runoff water from the station.

Anywho, I think a lot of us learned a valuable lesson from the experience and you can expect to see all the palagi in our training village visiting with family and napping the next Sunday we are in the village.

— Sara

Missing out

Most of the things I miss can come down to one very important thing: Independence.

One thing that PST is very good at stripping you of is your independence. So when the little things get you down, like wishing that you could have toast for breakfast that had actually been toasted recently — and not several hours earlier — it can all be traced back to a lack of independence. We depend on our host families and trainers for everything when we are in the village.

Earlier this week during our recent two-week stay in the village, HP, the training coordinator, interviewed each of us to see how PST was going. One of the things I brought up was the feeling I had of loosing my tenuous grip on adulthood. Maybe it is different for people who have been adults longer, but I have only been doing this adult thing for four years now. I am finding it easy to regress back to a college-like — heck, a middle-school-like — state in the camp-like environment that is PST (I wonder if I could have worked more likes into that sentence).

Later in the week I had a chat with HP where he mentioned that he had thought about being a teacher one day.

“You are a teacher now,” I said.

“No. I am a professional trainer. I see you as professionals,” he replied (in my paraphrased, yet using quotes, throwing journalism ethics to the wind story telling).

However, when I thought about it, I don’t see myself as a professional anymore. I see my self as an adolescent or kid of some kind. There are silly-songs and warm-up activities and skits. The only thing we are really missing is bonfires and arts and crafts — soon we will all make lanyards to send home to our moms. I have come to see the trainers as these older, camp-counselor, authority figures. In reality, one trainer is only five years older than Cale.

I don’t think that this is an inherent aspect of PST. I think that it is just a role I have found myself slipping into. I have so little control, over so little things that I think I find it a coping method to let myself let go of even the few adult-like things I still had and fall back into the role of kid and student.

There are times though that I find myself day dreaming about things like buying my own groceries and making my own toast.

— Sara

First mail

I just want to give a shout out to Grandma and Pep-Pep Hoffman whose Halloween card was our first in-country mail — and it even came close to Halloween!

I also wanted to give people an idea on timelines for packages. Cale’s mom mailed a package for us right after we left for staging. It took one month to reach us in Sāmoa. However, on the same day that we received our package, another volunteer finally got a package she had sent to herself two months ago and she even used a faster mail option. So what I guess I am trying to say is that packages come when they come, but don’t expect them to arrive any sooner than a month.

So, ahem, if you were thinking about sending a Christmas package, now would be the time to get that puppy in the mail. (I see, after writing this entry, emails from Mom and Dad about a package they have sent — so this pointed message is not for them.)

You also may have noticed a new list in the sidebar (see that over there on the left? Yeah that, that’s the sidebar) of things to consider including in a package if you send one. Just some ideas, cough, you might consider.

On a semi-related note, I have also started a list of afflictions. You know, just so you can keep up-to-date on all the fun things that can happen to you while in the Peace Corps. In fact, while I am typing this I am sitting on a hot water bottle (I think I almost cried when Teuila, our medical officer, gave it to me, I was so excited to have a hot water bottle) because of the pain of the two, giant boils on my butt. And when Cale gets up he is going to try a new experiment with the mysterious rash on his side, no more anti-itch cream, now hydrocortisone cream. Very exciting.

— Sara

Finally, Cale has something to say

So — Sara keeps getting after me to write a blog entry, so here I go.

It's only after you've been here a while that you notice some of the little things:

Panhandlers — I have only been asked for money one time, and it was while skate boarding along the seawall in a hat and sunglasses. I may as well have had a sign on my forehead saying "Not From Here" A fellow approached me, complimented me, asked me how I was doing, we chatted about the weather (hot), we made introductions, and after we bid each other goodbye he asked me for two tala. I said I didn't have it. He said Ok. It was the most pleasant panhandling experience I have ever had. Nothing like the endless parade of gruff 'can I have some change' requests I got in Orlando.

Stars — Well, there is a lot of them, that goes without saying. Less light pollution = more stars. But they are all different. Way different. I'm no astronomer; up north I can pick out Orion’s belt, and usually one or two of the dippers. I never knew how odd it would be to look up and see nothing familiar. A lot of nothing familiar.

Exotic vs. Domestic — I’m sitting under a mango tree. There are mangos everywhere. I think I paid 7 bucks for a wine glass full of mango juice in Broad Ripple before we came here, and now I'm sitting next to half a dozen of them. On the other hand, anyone got any red onion they can spare?

Anyway - that's enough for now


Don’t worry, we are alive

We have been in the host village for the past two weeks, so no internets. I hope that no one has been too concerned about not hearing from us.

Just one blog/flickr maintenance message. For the safety and privacy of our host family, I have made any recognizable pictures of them private on the Flickr account. That means that only people logged into Flickr and on our friends and/or family contact list can see these pictures. If you want to be our friend or family, simply sign up for a free Flickr account and send us a contact message. If we trust you, we will put you on the list.

(Mom: Dad already has an account, just ask him what his login is)

— Sara

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Cale versus the centipede

The mattresses in our house at our site are very mildewy and moldy since the house was left open for several months. We plan on remedying the situation when we move there in December. However, for the two nights of our site visit there wasn’t anything that could be done.

I was having a hard time breathing in the bedroom lying on those mattresses. On the second night Cale and I had set up sleeping on the floor of the living room. I was lying on some chair cushions, but Cale was lying on some sheets spread out of the floor.

I was half dozing, listening to the iPod when Cale woke with a start, yelling and thrashing around with his sheets. Needless to say, this scared me awake and had me yelling in fright as well. I am sure the neighbors were wondering what crazy things the palagi were doing at 10 pm.

Cale thought he might have rolled over on a millipede because they are supposed to cause a burning sensation when crushed. However, when he investigated the sheets he found one large, mean-looking centipede. It was still alive and uncurled itself and scuttled away.

Neither of us had our medical manuals with us and all we could remember about centipede stings is that they hurt, which I think that Cale can attest to now. We called the medical officer and she had Cale ice it and take some Ibuprofen. In the end, Cale says it was a similar experience to a bee sting. However, we have heard of other people stung by centipedes who experienced a lot of pain for several hours. In one of the nonfiction books I read set in the South Pacific the author was stung by a centipede on his foot and it swelled up for several days, so I am glad that Cale got off so lightly.

— Sara

On-the-job “Training” (yes, I used quotes there. I meant to)

Recently someone posted a comment to our blog asking about our Peace Corps experience. She mentioned that most of the blogs she is reading only say good things about the writers’ time in the PC and she was hoping to hear more about the trials and tribulations of serving. At the time, I told her that we were only three weeks into our time in the PC and that nothings bad had happened yet. Yes, training is hard and yes, at times I am hot and tired and overwhelmed, but nothing really negative had happened so far.

On Tuesday we went on our site visits/on-the-job training/independent travel trips. Basically the idea is you find your own way from Apia to your site and then you spend two days there getting to know the people you will be working with.

Oh wait, I am sorry, am I getting ahead of myself here? Did I fail to mention that site announcement was on Monday? Oh goodness. Well, on Monday we learned where we are going to be spending the next two years. Such a small detail to gloss over.

Cale and I are living and working in the same village. I will be teaching computers at a college (read: high school) run by the Methodist Board of Education and Cale will be teaching woodworking at the vocational school next door, also run by the Methodists. There is also a third member of our PC group, Aaron, living and working in our village. He is going to be working with Cale at the vocational school. He will be roommates with a JICA volunteer at my school. I don’t know all the details about JICA, but it appears to be the Japanese version of the Peace Corps.

So, where was I? Oh yes, the site visits and negative experiences. So something I learned about negative experiences in the PC is that it is all a matter of your attitude, time and processing. If I had written this post immediately after my first day at my school, it would have been incredibly negative. In fact, I did write something in my notebook the day after and it is very long and complainy. However, I have had time to think about the experience and time to process it with the other volunteers and trainers and it has given me a better perspective on things.

I was very overwhelmed on my first day. The school didn't seem to know I was coming. The principal paired me up with one of the other computer teachers who was very nice and seemed like someone it would be good to partner with later. Unfortunately, that teacher had only been teaching at the school for four weeks (two of which were a break) and didn’t have a lot of information about the computer department or program. He did show me the computer lab, which is FULL of potential. It is a clean, well-organized, air-conditioned room with more than 20 new computers. However, only six of them are working at this time. I feel pretty confident that is fixable.

However, after first period that teacher disappeared and I was left to my own devices in the teachers lounge. I made some conversation with other teachers, but they seemed like they needed to work, so I mostly sat to myself and wrote letters home. During this time the principal was also away, when he returned I asked him if I could observe a computer class and he sent me off to watch another computer teacher for the last period of the day.

This is when I discovered that no teaching is going on this week. Students are having self-study for the exams next week. It highlights the difference between the Sāmoan education system and the one that I am used to. In the States the week before a big exam the teachers spend it doing review, frequently with games and quizzes and practice tests, and all the quiet self-study is something you are supposed to do on your own at home. In Sāmoa (or at least at this school), the students sit quietly and study at their desks and the teachers just act as room monitors during the week before the exams. I wonder if part of that is because the students do not have time to study at home, they have lots of chores to do when they get home.

Anyway, this teacher decided to do something with his class because I was watching, so he started to ask them questions about things like input devices and RAM and ROM. Then, he started quizzing me a little. Which is where my day really fell apart. When I didn’t know the answers to questions, it set the class laughing and he had to give them a speech in Sāmoan about not laughing at me. It was pretty humiliating.

Before we left, your trainers prepared us saying that the school would have a place for us to stay set up and that they would be feeding us while we were there. However, the people at the school didn’t know anything about this, which jacked my anxiety level up even more. I was sent me off across campus to find the director.

By the time Cale and Aaron found me 30 minutes later sitting in the director’s waiting room I was pretty much a mess. I was hot, hungry (I hadn’t eaten anything all day but bread and tea from the tea break), anxious, humiliated and in general in fear for the next two years. And, to be totally honest, I cried.

Thankfully, the director was totally on top of things. He knew we were coming and planned for us to stay in the house where we will be living when we work there, only a stone’s throw from the school and next door to his. The house is awesome. It looks just like the sort of house you would find in Florida. Cinder block construction, three bedrooms, a large living room and dining area with a dining table, a large kitchen with gas stove and oven with broiler and refrigerator, and a large wrap around porch. The house is rock-tastic and totally not what I expected at all. We will need to clean the living daylights out of it. The last volunteer to live there left rather unexpectedly in June or July and the house was left open to the elements for all that time (all the louvered windows were left open and it might have even been unlocked). It is pretty filthy inside, but nothing a power washer (or a lot of hot water and soap) won’t fix.

I went to school the next day with an improved attitude and determined to take things into my own hands. I still ended up sitting in the teachers’ lounge for most of the day, but I did get to meet the head of my department and ask him questions and I did make a friend with one of the science and maths (they call it maths in Sāmoa) teachers (I think). And after processing with the group and trainers back in Apia the next day, I was determined to look at the potential of my site and not at the experience of the first day. There is one guy in our group whose site was a completely wrong match for him and right now, he doesn’t know where he will be working, yet he has the best attitude out of all of us I think and that was really inspiring.

My school has a computer lab all set up and, with a little work, ready to rock and roll. I met a new computer teacher who has a lot of good ideas for the school computer program including getting a computer with Internet in the library and teaching research skills to the students. The head of my department is interested in having me help him learn more about computers. I made friends with a teacher my age and I might even join her soccer team when I get there. I have Cale for support and Aaron and the JICA volunteer are down the street if we ever need a suipi party.

One of the things I kept telling myself after the first day was, “If everything here was the way it should be, they wouldn’t need Peace Corps in the first place.” I cannot look at all the difficulties I had with my site on the first day and let it get me down. That is what I am here to do, I am supposed to find areas where there might be room for improvement and then do what I can to help people improve them. So how is that for a Hallmark-movie ending of inspiration and up-lifted spirits?

So now that I have blathered on for a ridiculous amount of time (word count at this point: 1,675) you may be wondering, “So, how was Cale’s site visit?” I cannot speak for Cale, other than to say that it sounded like it was pretty amazing and he is stoked to get to work. Hopefully, I can get him to start making posts to the blog and he can tell you about his experience.

— Sara

If this were real, we’d be underwater by now

Monday was Sāmoa’s first national tsunami drill. When the announcement went out, everyone was required to make his or her way to designated high ground. Ours was at Chanel College, about four miles away. Of course, you cannot use vehicles, as that would lead to standstill traffic jams. So we hoofed it up the mountain at 11:30 am under the blazing sun for an hour or so. I was actually enjoying it. It was hot and sweaty and long and quite a work out — and it felt great. Of course later that night my hips had a thing or two to say about the whole experience.

— Sara

Oh, aren’t we adorable?

So, rumor has it that Sāmoan couples will frequently dress in matching outfits. I have yet to see any locals do this, but host families sure do like to dress up their married Pisikoa in matching outfits.

Cale and I now have three matching outfits that our host mom made for us. Speaking of sewing clothes, our host mom is just amazing. She sewed outfits for us three times in the week we were there and all of those times she either did it that morning before breakfast or just the night before. She really is talented.

Apparently there is a contest between the families and status is associated with who can best dress their Pisikoa. It is like we are life-sized dolls. Even when our host mom hasn’t sewn something for us to wear, she would give us some of the families clothes to wear to class — and made us keep those clothes. That makes me feel a little guilty, but we will try to reciprocate with gifts back. Thanks to this practice, Cale is now the proud owner of an orange Snoop Dogg sports jersey and I have my very own, surprisingly slinky, crushed velvet maroon skirt. I can feel your jealousy all the way around the world.

— Sara

Do you like pig trotters?

Our trainers prepared our host families for us in a variety of ways. One of them was the food. They told the families that palagi like soup because soups in Sāmoa usually contain vegetables.

Our family has been giving us soups frequently and they are usually delicious. Ever since Cale told them potatoes are my favorite food, they usually have potatoes in them. They also use a lot of pumpkin in soups, which I have not seen before, but is delicious.

Sāmoan soups frequently contain large chunks of whatever meat is flavoring the broth. These chunks can contain bones and gristle. I am pretty sure you are supposed to eat around them. However, I didn’t know that the first night.

I put the ladle into the pot of soup to serve Cale and as I pulled it out and headed for Cale’s bowl, I saw the large chunk. I looked at Cale in horror as our host mom asked, “Do you like pig trotters?” I was about to dump an entire pig’s foot into his bowl and there was nothing I could do about it. I was poast the point of no return without looking rude. We locked eyes. Cale’s were asking, “What are you doing to me?” and mine were asking, “What am I doing to you?” With a splat the foot landed in his bowl.

Thankfully there was fish for dinner too and Cale was able to set the pig’s foot aside gracefully.

I haven’t been doing so great with Sāmoan food, but I think that in part it is attributable to two factors:

1. I was sick for a couple of days when we were at the host village. Nothing serious. I was just a little nauseated and tired and not hungry. So I wasn’t eating

Speaking of not eating, the family comments on my “figa” quite frequently. Apparently, I have quite a nice one, which they attribute to me eating less than the baby. To be honest, I have lost some weight, thanks to being ill and the four-mile hike we had on tsunami safety day (more about that later). The Sāmoan weight-loss plan is great!

2. Someone is always watching me while I eat. In Sāmoan culture, adults and guests always eat first and the children serve them. There is always a kid (or often, even our host mom) fanning our food to keep the flies away and other kids waiting for me to finish so they can bring me a bowl of water to wash my hands with.

It is hard to navigate the an experience with a new food when your every move and bite is going closely watched.

Our family loves Cale. They say he is a good eater and he has taken to some of the Sāmoan foods better than me, like the boiled banana and coconut cream, fa’alifu, and the young taro leaves and coconut cream, pulusami.

Speaking of coconut, that is one crazy versatile plant. You can build your house out of it, thatch your roof with it, make a bowl or a basket or a broom out of it and feed your family with it. Every stage of the coconuts growth yields a different kind of food — and none of it tastes like the shredded coconut we put on cookies and in cakes in the States.

— Sara

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sāmoa is made of music

The sites

Our first week in the training village was an interesting experience. On Monday, I thought the week was never going to end and by Friday, I couldn't believe it was almost over.

When we arrived at the village we were greeted with an ava ceremony. (As an aside, we met a man from the attorney generals' office at one of our training sessions and he said he has only been to three ceremonies in his life and we have been to three in the past three weeks.) We could tell right away that the faife'au (pastor) of the village was an important man because he sat in the position for the high chief during the ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, our names were called out one by one (or in our case two by one) and we were handed off to our new host families.

We were met by our host mother. As it turns out, she is related to one of our trainers, Leata. She had been at our hotel earlier in the week and had already seen us before we met her that day.

That first night we experienced our first Sa (village prayer of sorts). The entire village has a curfew from 6:30 pm to 7 pm. A warning horn is blown around 6 pm. Our family gathered in the fale i tua (back house) to pray. They started the prayer with a song, which was sung beautifully and with enthusiasm by the entire family, from mom and dad all the way down to the three year old. What was amazing was sitting there in the twilight, listening to this family singing in a language I didn't understand and hearing all across the village and off into the distance other families singing as well.

We ended the evening playing a Sāmoan card game that has become all the rage among Group 79 boys. It is called suipi (I think. I will have to check on the spelling, but is sounds like sweep-ee). The second oldest daughter and our host mom played with us while the the other kids hung around, too.

I should probably introduce the family better. Our mom is a seamstress and she has a shop in Apia. Our host dad works on the village plantation (farm). Their oldest daughter is twenty-three and married with two kids. Her family lives with her parents. The next daughter is 17 and waiting to go to New Zealand for school. Apparently, she will be adopted by relatives there. The next daughter is about 13 and goes to high school. The only boy is 11. The two youngests are about eight and six.

There is a lot of English-speakers in the family. Our family is really great at helping us learn the language. Of course, Cale is doing better than I am, but I am slowly picking things us.

Our schedule is pretty packed. We are at school everyday by 8 am and classes end at 5 pm. They are followed by a one hour optional tutorial. When school is out we head home to shower before the Sa and dinner and then after diner we usually do homework or play suipe with Gal (Kale) who is with the next family over. Then we sleep.

More from the village to come.

— Sara

40 years of Peace Corps in Sāmoa

Fire Dancer

We were lucky enough to arrive in Sāmoa in time for the fortieth anniversary of Peace Corps in Sāmoa. The celebration was the second weekend we were in town and RPCVs from the first two groups were in country for the celebration. These returned Volunteers were the first ones on the ground in Sāmoa in 1967 when PC started here. It was extremely interesting to meet them and to hear their stories.

We actually got an early taste of the RPCV when we ran into a group while we were out to dinner at the Rainforest Café. We were told they could tell we were new because some of us were drinking wine instead of the local beer, Vailima.


The first event for the several-day long celebration was a parade of sorts from the PC headquarters to downtown lead by the police band early Friday morning. Then there were speeches from the country director of PC, the charge d’affairs from the U.S. consulate and none other than the Prime Minister of Sāmoa. It was pretty amazing to see the prime minister of a country giving a speech in the open meeting fale to a small group of people with no pomp or circumstance. One of the RPCV also gave a speech; he had actually served as the country director in Sāmoa several years ago, in addition to being one of the original volunteers.

There were other events during the day, but we couldn’t stay because we were packing for our village visit that we would be leaving for on Saturday afternoon.

Friday night was the fiafia. Usually a welcome fiafia (party) is held for the new PC trainees their first weekend in town. The current volunteers put it on. However, because of these extraordinary circumstances, this welcome fiafia we held a week later and the RPCVs were the guests of honor. I mean, how often does a group of original volunteers return to Sāmoa on the 40th anniversary?

The fiafia was pretty cool. At the end of the ava ceremony, one of the original RPCV (have I mentioned that stands for returned peace corps volunteer) gave a fine, woven Sāmoan mat that he had received during his tour 40 years ago to Aaron, one of the guys in our group. During the events, he had discovered that he and Aaron were from the same hometown in Oregon. He charged Aaron with returning to Sāmoa in 40 years to pass it on to another volunteer.


After that the current volunteers put on a show for us with Sāmoan siva (dancing) and pesie (singing). It was pretty fabulous. I did have a little trouble because I had unknowingly sat at the end of the row in the audience. Anytime the dancers or performers wanted to pull someone in form the audience, it ended up being me. And you know how much I love being the center of attention and being awkward in front of an audience. Add to that I was tired and hot and hungry and I was a little upset for a little while after the performances.

We also had a fire dancer perform. She was one of the Year 9 girls from the school where the fiafia was hosted, Kolisi o Sānele. She was probably about 13 years old and she rocked. It was amazing.

After the show was the feast. The current volunteers had prepared for us a smorgasbord of food. It included two cooked pigs and other Sāmoan foods, but there were also refried beans and pasta salad and rice krispy treats and other palagi foods.

Something pretty exciting about the whole event was that the head of state came and sat in the front row with the country director and watched the whole thing. He didn’t want to be introduced and it was all very chill and under the radar, but still very prestigious that he was there. I know I mentioned earlier that the PM was at the morning events; this is a different guy. He is a little like royalty, the way the Queen in the head of state in England, but different. In Sāmoa every family has it’s own matai title and villages have high chief and orator matai titles. There are four families that have the highest matai titles possible and it is one of these matais (a first among equals of the other families) who is the head of state. He also happens to be the PC training coordinator’s uncle. I hope I have explained this correctly. If not, I will get back to you to correct myself.

On Saturday we went to a symposium organized for the 40th. There was a panel of RPCV who talked about their time here. One woman returned to the states to get her nursing license and work in public health when she was done with the PC, something she had no background in before. She discovered once she moved to her village, people came to her with their medical troubles because she had a PC medical kit and that sparked her interest in the field. Another man actually went on to be the country director in Sāmoa years later. He also was a graduate of the public health doctorate program at Mizzou, so I talked to him for a bit with that as an introduction.

During the panel he talked about how your PC experience will be what you make of it. He shared a story of a time in country when he was trying to build chicken coops, but he had no hammer. He found himself sitting there, wondering what he would do with out a hammer and so he turned, picked up a rock and used it as a hammer for his coops. He said not to focus on what you don’t have, but to instead focus on what you do have and make that work for you. Another volunteer talked about how there wasn’t one epiphany moment for him where PC changed his life, but he did say:

You will benefit. I promise you that.

We had to leave the symposium early because we were leaving for our host village — which is a story for another day.

— Sara